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June 30, 2004

Twenty Questions

Everyone asks these questions. I don't blame them. My Dutch coworkers, my family, the movers, my American friends, the woman preparing my visa termination, passport control--they all ask variations of the same questions. I sat in a restaurant and jotted them down quickly between bites of tonijnsteak. The answers are not always easy. But here we go...

1. Are you happy to be moving back home?

Uh...Chicago has never been my home. I've lived most of my adult life in Florida, which is 2000 km from Chicago, as far as Amsterdam from Rome. I guess Chicago will by my home, but with corporate life these days, one never knows, do one?

2. OK, so are you happy to be moving back to your home country?

Very mixed feelings. I am not happy to be leaving the Netherlands, a better place to live than the US. There, I said it.

The US is a better place to work, however. So if your idea of life is to work a lot and spend the extra money you earn on cars and overeating, if you like cutting down trees to put up walls of billboards along your roads, if garish radio adverts for liposuction seem normal to you, if you don't mind spending your life in cars, if you measure everyone's life by how much money they make, then by all means, the US is your place. But if you refuse to submit to the "economization of all life", if you value peace, and proper justice, and happy children who bring a smile rather than grimaces to the next tables in restaurants, then the Netherlands excels. More about this below in this post, and in a later post.

By the way--I'm not trying to outrage anyone here, except perhaps Ann Coulter. But Dutch Straight Talk is now deeply in my blood. If so moved, you are free to post polite comments in agreement or rebuttal.

3. In America, are you going to ride a bicycle to work?

Only the Dutch ask this one--Americans know better. (The answer is No Way.) US bicycle paths are generally cute, useless little frills in parks, etc.. They go nowhere, are totally nonfunctional except for riding in circles. You cannot share roads with cars in the US. They go too fast, they are much too wide, and the drivers are both less competent and much more aggressive. Anyway, the distances are also much greater, and the weather is too restrictive. A loser all the way around.

Riding on American bike paths remind me of a caged tiger: you can pace back and forth, but it's the same old thing day after day, accomplishing nothing. The network of bike paths in the Netherlands allows a freedom I've never known in travel, like a tiger in the wild. Just because they're called the same thing doesn't mean they are at all the same.

Anyway, bicycling in the Netherlands doesn't map to bicycling in the US. It maps to motorcycling in the US--distances, wonderful road network, fuel prices, and weather work in motorcyling's favor. Now, that may get interesting in its own right (possible future blog).

4. Are you going to vote in the presidential elections?

Four years ago I lived in Florida, and hell--still no one can say if my vote was counted. So, who knows?

5. You mean you're going to sell your bicycle!?!

Ouch. Yes. In fact, it's done. Something like giving away a beloved pet. (Can we please talk about something else?)

6. What was the best/most memorable of your bicycle rides?

Tough question, but a happy one. After much difficulty, I'm going to pick...um...the first German-border ride, archived post HERE. In fact, I'm going to pick just two hours in the middle of the ride, during which I found the easternmost point in the Netherlands, discovered the somehow fulfilling central plaza of Bourtange, somehow crossed with the bike over locks without falling into the canal, and rode on a shell trail between a canal and the most beautiful forest imaginable. An afternoon to be glad one is alive.

7. What is the worst Dutch town you found?

Another tough one. The list is short. The town I most desperately wanted to escape was Scheviningen, on the North Sea near Den Haag--see my post archived HERE. But overall the most depressing town was (don't hate me if you're from there): Tiel. It's what Americans would call "rough." (I might add that Tiel would be the best town in certain American states.) I could also answer Hoofddorp, which has managed to distill all the worst parts of American, even Japanese urban life. I have different advice to those of you afraid of black cats, witches, and things hiding under your bed: avoid Urk.

8. OK, so what is the best Dutch town you found?

Much easier, thank you. But I simply have to give answers by size of town.

Best Dutch BIG city. We choose from four: Den Haag, Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Utrecht. I'm going to disappoint the tourists here. My answer is Den Haag, the Hague. To me, it is most of what the Netherlands is about--and I'll explain this a bit in a later post. It is cosmopolitan without being tourist-driven, a rainbow of people, and arguably the most just city on the planet. Anyway, to proclaim Amsterdam "real Dutch" would be proclaiming Honolulu to be "real American". Rotterdam--too new and reconstructed. Utrecht might rank second to Den Haag. Your mileage may vary.

Best Dutch Mid-size city. This choice is incredibly easy: Delft. Honorable Mention goes to Maastricht. I admit that I never spent time in Leiden and Dordrecht, of which I've heard excellent things.

Best Dutch small town. This choice is impossible. There are SO MANY smaller towns of excellent quality. (I'm guessing at the populations, please don't grill me if some of these are mid-size.) I could name Enkhuizen, Makkum, Katwijk, Harlingen, Gorinchem, Naarden, Bourtange, Hilversum, Vlissingen, Wassenaar, Marken, Huizen, Rhenen, Medemblik, Bellingwoude, Gramsbergen--I'm sorry, I can't do this, I can't go on. Each name evokes specific memories, specific characteristics, like naming friends. And I'm not even a small-town person, but the richness is just completely outside my previous experience.

9. Where will you live in the US?

I gave up on buying a house, my heart wasn't in it. I have purchased an apartment (not yet finished!) next to a station on the train line to Chicago. The drive to work is 12 minutes--incredibly short by US standards. Across from the apartment will be shops of various kinds, and I can walk to any number of bars, and crawl back legally. I will take care not to pass out on the tracks. In any case, you can see Dutch life has had an effect.

10. What's going to be the hardest habit to change?

Not to utter "Alstublieft" every time I hand over money, or stand aside or hold the door open for someone else. At first in the Netherlands, it was a struggle to make myself remember to say this at the rushed grocery counter, etc. In the US it's easier--you just shove the money across. Never in the Netherlands. "Alstublieft" is a gentle courtesy of which I've grown quite fond.

11. What's the biggest difference between the US and the Netherlands.

Regarding the physical country itself, the biggest difference is in land use. The Dutch know their land is limited, and the degree to which they have organized physical layout is simply astonishing. What is even more remarkable is how most of this planning is hidden. The heide (heather) south of town may look natural and a casual refuge from your crowded village, but you can bet that some office has a computer database storing the boundaries of this heide to the centimeter. Nothing is left to chance. Whereas the US is suspicioius of land planning, fretting that it will somehow limit your use of your land. (Get over it--of COURSE use of your own land is already limited--after all, you can't even legally smoke pot on it.) Thus in Houston you get service stations next to mansions, and eyesores like power poles and garbage dumps everywhere you turn. The US is ugly, partly because its voters suspect land planning to be the Devil's work.

There is a second big difference in the two nations' atmospheres: the high rate of violent crime in the US and the low rate in the Netherlands. This changes more than just your insurance bill. It means that night is never really dark in US cities due to all the security lights (I find this sad). It means that the Dutch bicycling system would never work in the US--you would worry (rightly) every time you went through a bike tunnel that someone with a baseball bat was waiting for you on the other side. It also means that millions of crazies legally buy guns of their own, which they think will protect them but which only serves to put more guns on the street. It means the US police might conclude in a split second that YOU are armed and shoot YOU. If you don't believe me about the gun business, spend a couple of hours next Saturday night in a large county hospital in any American city, and count the gunshot victims brought in. Violent crime changes everything.

Another difference: most things are cheaper in the US--food, automobiles, clothing, certainly petroleum. Coffee is a spectacular exception, being much cheaper in the Netherlands. Autos and fuel are more expensive per unit in the Netherlands, but you don't need to spend your life in a car as you do in the US, so this largely cancels the difference. And the Netherlands' beauty and safety and peace count for zero in purely economic standards of living,

In fact, I believe that the use of economics to measure life quality is the biggest difference between the two nations' cultures. The US tends to present "standard of living" (meaning income) as the best or only measure of life quality. The Americans make a little more, so the Dutch just have to catch up, right? Uh, no. What the Dutch (and many other European nations) have done is to resist the "economization of all of life". That is, in the Netherlands, the economically best choice is not automatically put in practice. When a billboard goes up, someone makes money, but is the nation enriched?

What the Dutch ask in addition is this: "What kind of country do we want to have?" The bike paths are not tollways, they don't make money--they are built and maintained because that is part of the nation they want to have. By contrast, US education is spotty at best because the US doesn't ask the same question "What kind of country do we want to have?" Schools aren't profitable, so they suffer. When someone is shot in the streets, the nation's economic activity is incrementally increased--but is the nation a better place for it?

"How many dollars would we pay for less violent crime?" is one way to frame they question--and it would make a nice start--but ultimately it's not about money. It's about what kind of country to have. For example, the US insists that Europe import and eat genetically modified foods. Monsanto screams, "There's no science saying it's unsafe. It's cheaper, so you have no reason not to eat it." But the Europeans simply don't want them, money or no money. Their answer is not phrased in money, which makes it an answer the Americans still cannot understand. Americans are impressed by money, and they are driven to reduce questions to money, they have to "economize all of life" or they can't make policy (unless religion gets in the way). To me, this is the biggest difference between Americans on the whole and Europeans on the whole. They compare not apples and oranges, but apples and meteorites. There is no overlap, no meeting of the minds.

OK, one more difference. The average Dutch teenager is roughly as mature as the average American adult. Sorry, but it's true. Now, that probably makes Dutch adults seem a bit stuffy--and that's indeed the stereotype--but even stuffy maturity of a populace is not overall a bad thing.

12. What is the biggest difference between the Dutch people and the American people?

Unfair question, and some overlap with the above. But I heard this question a lot, so I'll give it a go. Certainly the difference is not in wealth, or in intelligence, or in general kindness of the two peoples--the two nations are remarkably similar so far as I can tell.

In simple, overall maturity, though, I have to admit the Dutch have an advantage. Being an American adult, this is not particularly comfortable to admit. But American adults just too often act the child--selfish, helpless, overly sure of themselves, out of touch with the world and especially out of touch with its history. On the whole, Dutch teens are about as mature as American adults.

Also, in some way that I cannot quite put my finger on, but Americans seem to believe that history is a one-way street to Progressville, with America of course holding high a bright torch for the rest of the world to follow, if the rest of the world would just be reasonable and do things the American way. But Europeans, and the Dutch in particular, believe that the world should be a community, that people are not necessarily getting better or worse than they have been.

The Dutch suffered quite horribly--as much as anyone--at the hands of the Nazis. They may be excused for now being deeply suspicious of All-In-One global solutions, of zealotry of any sort. They have not always been a peaceful nation, but their record over the past 100 years of valuing peace and justice over Marching to Apocalypse is perhaps unequalled. The words "Your lifestyle is wrong, my lifestyle is right, so you must change yours right now or we'll end up fighting" flow much too easily from many Americans' lips. But I cannot imagine a Dutchman saying this. You can call it permissiveness if you like, but look at the last 50 years' records of peace (internal and external). I'll say more about peace in a later post.

13. What will you miss most about the Netherlands?

The Netherlands' natural beauty, which of course is only partly natural. Also: the utter freedom from fear of physical violence. And bicycling.

14. Did you succeed at your job in the Netherlands?

I'm happy to say: yes. I did what I came to do, but this blog is not about my job. Next question, please.

15. What's the best thing about the US?

That's easy: the energy of its people. Sheer raw energy. Like a nation of teenagers vs. the Europeans' old fogeys (the analogy applies in more ways than this). Think rock-and-roll, Wall Street, Lance Armstrong, longer work hours, extreme sporting...even think of a, er, certain older American guy obsessed cycled around the Netherlands.

16. What's the worst thing about the US?

It's Puritanism, linked with this weird, obsessive Holy March to the Future. What happens sometimes is this: all that energy can get misdirected, or opportunities for cooperation are wasted. Sometimes people even get hurt.

17. OK, then. What's the best thing about the Netherlands?

They have built a society that unarguably works. And depending on what you value, you might argue that it works as well as any society on the planet. They have crafted compromises between economic stability and economic lawlessness, and between security (with the risk of oppression and intolerance) and anarchy (with the risk of...everything). The Dutch have been working for 350-400 years on these balances, and they seem to have gotten them pretty close to right.

18. And the worst thing about the Netherlands?

Whew, back to an easy answer: services. Not all services, thank goodness, but Helaas most of them. Would you like the examples chronologically or alphabetically?

  • It took KPN 11 visits to turn on my (already wired) phone service.
  • It took Wanadoo.NL only one try to turn on my dial-up internet service...(wait for it)...BUT they never hooked up the DSL service in 13 months. They don't start billing until DSL is on, which means HA HA HA that DOA was largely posted on free internet access.
  • Gemeentehuis Bussum changed the numbering on my apartment, but never told anyone else. So I get these calls from the Immigration police asking why I moved apartments without telling them. I finally had to get a letter from Bussum and take a train to Hilversum to explain it.
  • Getting a drivers' licence application took 8 months. Of course, the limit for driving with a US license is 6 months. Worse, they insisted that I give up my US license, and after 6-8 weeks they would give it back, they said. But with my travelling, I could never give up my license for that long. Stalemate. And now that I have turned in the company car the truth can be told!...I never got a Dutch drivers' license. Nyaaaa nyanya nyaaa nyaaa.
  • American Express Netherlands (yes, such a thing exists) promised to bill my company directly for company expenses. They forgot to bill me, and they forgot to bill the company. The next month, they did remember to bill me for late charges. Which I paid just before I cut my card in half.
  • Policy at work states that certain documents must be shredded. When we moved lab buildings, they forgot to buy a shredder. So for months, our shreddable stuff just stacked up in our cabinets. Which was fine until they issued a new Clean Cabinets policy...you get the idea.

The main principle regarding services in the Netherlands seems to be this: Do the minimum to get the client to leave. When he does leave, you can mark it up as a successful transaction and get credit for it. When the client must come back (at their expense) because you left out some information, simply repeat the process--that is, give him the minimum that persuades him to leave, then record a second successful transaction. Continue repeating until you are promoted.

19. What are you going to do differently after your Dutch experience vs. before it?

I would like to take up the guitar. I might get a motorcycle. My work has some problems addressable by object-oriented programming, so I'd like to get really good at that. I'm going to live in an apartment rather than a house (for the first time in many years). I'm going to make more friends if they'll have me.

20. Are you going to keep writing to this blog, Downwind of Amsterdam?

No. In July 2004 this blog will stop. It will stay available on the web, but I will not extend it. Its mission in life is complete.

I am considering a new blog about Illinois, and the Midwest's ubiquitous, amusing, and generally innocent "undercurrent of weirdness", and about the US, and...uh, I'll let you know.

But not DOA--it will definitely stop.

posted by eric at 15.08 CET | Permalink | Comments (8)

June 28, 2004

Final Weekend

Preparing to leave the Netherlands. This is going to be emotionally wrenching at times. Let's get one of the hardest parts over with, first.

You knew this had to happen. I rolled it out of its comfy storage room for the last time, washed it, wiped it down. It gleamed, it was beautiful. Sunday evening just before dark, I rode it along Frederik van Eedenweg, Vondellaan, Brediusweg, Flevolaan, and Huizerstraatweg, turned right into the company bicycle path...


...and parked it in the space nearest the badge entrance, so that Monday morning--my last Monday morning here--as many people as possible could see it. I placed the signs on it: DEZE FIETS TE KOOP.

I pocketed the key, looked back once, and walked--walked--away, from where I had just ridden. 4000 km together, all those pictures in this blog, and it had never let me down. This part of my life is over. My first sad moment in the Netherlands. But it really needed to sell in the next 5 days.

It sold in the first two hours. Monday morning, I handed Wim the keys, showed him a couple of things, took the signs off, and we walked back into the building. That part of my life is irredeemably over. Wim will like his new bike. But--farewell.


In both days of my Final Weekend, I ended up visiting Delft. Good choice.


Walking to the train station, I notice that Frederik van Eedenweg has new heirs to its goose dynasty.


The main market in Delft is an amazing place, dominated by the Nieuwe Kerk. There's practically always something happening there. I stopped at the cafe "Willem van Oranje" for appelgebak--the best I know of, anywhere, a revelation.
 


 
 


While I've lived away from the US, I've thought of it less and less often...but sometimes one question occurs to me: what IS it about America that prevents places like this? So simple, and so very comfortable. Gezellig. It's a mystery.
 

The second day I stop in on Amsterdam, pay the breath-stopping parking tarifs, and walk around.


For sale: a Che Guevara doormat. Hmmm. Now, I wonder which meaning the designer intended: honoring Che's image at our home's very doorstep, or just wiping our feet on his face?


The most interesting thing about your adjustments to a new country is that you cannot even dream of the in advance. Pictured is A4, connecting the 3 largest Dutch cities, Amsterdam, Rotterdam, and Den Haag. A very nice, modern, fast expressway. But traffic stops for a drawbridge. The first time I saw this, I found it not just weird, but alarmingly weird. This time, I hardly even noticed enough to take this picture for you.

I walked around Delft. I had appelgebak again. It is hard to imagine ever tiring of this place, it is so...concetrated. The Netherlands and its history and its habits distilled to high proof.


I have to take one last look back. Farewell, Delft. When will I see you again?
 

posted by eric at 15.58 CET | Permalink | Comments (3)

June 25, 2004

The Circle Unbroken

This is my last weekend in the Netherlands. But the Friday looked too perfect, so I skip work and head to Naarden-Bussum station where I haul the bike up and in the train, to complete, absolutely complete my circumnavigation of the Netherlands.

I decide: this is the day. Let's do it.

Today's small bike map HERE, the detailed one HERE (800KB). Red is today's ride; green previous rides.

I head out of Weert and under the train tunnel, and southwest to the Belgian border. It is trying to rain, but the sky looks flat and has blue patches showing, which usually means it won't deteriorate. I'm looking for a bridge over the canal, one that is clearly marked on the map, but it just doesn't exist. I end up riding upwind well into Belgium. I will have to backtrack. A terrible start.


Everything looks just a little different when you've crossed into Belgium. By the shapes of traffic signs alone I can tell when I've crossed over. These little differences are so invisible at first, but with more familiarity they start speaking to you.

The maps show all the smaller roads back into the Netherlands to be blocked by a canal--no bridges. But as I ride through remote Neerkriel (Belgium), a sign clearly points, "Stamproy", which lies a few hundred meters inside the Netherlands. I go, and a bridge does cross. Great--I've found two map mistakes in the first hour of riding. Very poor form, ANWB.

I wind my way along highways, then sail at high speed down some long slopes--entering the Maas valley, which the border and I will more or less follow all the way to Maastricht, today's destination.


And soon enough, there it is: the Maas. This is looking south, and in a few km the border with Belgium will follow the Maas' old channel.
 

I try to follow the Maas and the border as closely as I can. Across the locks that begin the long channel to Maastricht, there sits a nice vesting, Stevensweert--an old bricked fortress town of the kind that oddly make some of the nicest beer-drinking and appelgebak-munching spaces in the nation. Then, a few minutes on south, and I burst out laughing...


For some reason "Ohe en Laak" strikes me as one of the most ridiculous and delightful town names I've encountered. I know just enough Dutch to appreciate its weirdness, but not enough to know exactly why I think it's weird.

I continue south, following the base of a very high ridge of earth. After a few minutes I can't stand it--I stop the bike next to a park bench and climb the steep, grassy wall...


The canal's water is startlingly higher than where I had just been riding along (at left), blissfully ignorant of the gigantic amount of water over me.
 


I start back down to my bicycle. A gaggle of cycling Smurfs (I mean of course Belgians) approach on the path. The first looks up to me atop the enormous dijk...


...then a few more. They gather, they chatter, they can't resist it.


A towering Dijk of Babel: "Kijk, mooi, he?" "Ooooh, comme c'est beau."
 


And then southwards along the Maas, which is only a pale imitation of its mightiness downstream, by Rotterdam for example. I assume that here the main volumes of water are preserved for the canal. (Picture is between towns of Meers and Elsloo).
 

And some other town names along this stretch amuse me as well: Roosteren, Vissersweert (one of the tiniest towns imaginable), Illikhoven, Nattenhoven, Catsop, and the baffling Geulle aan de Maas. Or maybe I'm just getting tired.


South of Geulle aan de Maas, the Juliana kanaal hides behind the line of trees, and I get to sail past kilometer upon kilometer of flower and wheat fields.
 

I stop, and I just look across it all, and the words come out loud, I love this place. I didn't mean to say that. But it's all right, it's true. I do love this place.


I look down, just where I'm standing and gape. I take this picture. These flowers will fade in just a few days, and the farmer will cut the wheat, and it will be gone, and when it comes back I won't be here. For a moment I'm weak and I fear for how terribly, and how soon, I will miss this place.
 

And soon the signs announce Maastricht. With a little energy left and a desire to put off the end of my Dutch cycling if only for a moment, I make a tour of the west side. I spy another Dutch border marker, this one right in the middle of a road. I push my bike up a steep road so narrow that thorns catch the back of both hands, then I sail down the other side, into a valley lit yellow by the late sun behind me. The road signs start to point to "Centrum," and I reluctantly follow them. And then...there it is.


Maastricht in the middle of its Friday-afternoon rush hour. Not as the Romans saw it, but still all that history and all the people who crossed the mighty river almost palpable in the breezes.
 


And then it was time. I stand and look behind, where I had just ridden. I stood in front of the station, exactly where I had stood on starting my first Limburg ride, weeks ago. The circle around the Netherlands is complete.

I shouldn't sigh. Today turned out to be a good ride. I did what I set out to do--today, and over the past few months. Indeed, my ridiculous dream of circling the Netherlands has come true. A bus could hit me right now and no one could take that away. I've ridden this marvelous machine 4000 km--much farther than I've driven my car. Well done, good and faithful servant.

It's time. The GPS beeps twice and blinks off. I roll the bike into the dark hall inside and buy a ticket home. The bike clicks as I roll it next to a bench by the train track, it stands, and I sit. My eyes close and I slump a bit onto the bike's cross bar, my arm around it.

posted by eric at 21.46 CET | Permalink | Comments (1)

June 20, 2004

The Longest Ride

It's great fun on some mornings to lock the apartment door behind me, and point the bike in no-matter-which direction, confident in it and in myself and in NS's ability to lug us both home at the end of a day from any train station--no planning, just a few maps and a notion. Nice rides, unplanned rides.

This is not one of those rides.

To sew up the southwest corner of the Netherlands will require a ride of at least 155 km, and probably more like 170 km. My longest ride to date has been 145 km. What's more: this ride is all the way across the nation, several train connections. I'm in great physical shape, and the bike is in great shape, too, so I can probably do the ride itself--but there is no way I can ride a train for 3 hours, take a ferry, ride 12 hours, and ride 3 hours home. But I refuse to give up on the ride.

A hotel. I get a hotel at the ride's start, stay overnight: start early, start fresh. Saturday night I buy a one-way ticket to Vlissingen. I sit with the train. Tomorrow will be long. Everything is about conserving energy.


It is good to conserve energy.
 


It's a few km to the hotel behind the dunes west of Vlissingen. They won't give me a ground-level room, but they do offer to let me park the bike overnight in a locked area with the employee's bikes. From the balcony it is quite beautiful, and the weather is perfect, though not forecast to stay that way. I can see the bike from my balcony.
 


Get some rest down there, you're going to need it.
 

A big dinner, a glass of wine, a bit of TV5 on the tele, and it's time to sleep. It's 11 pm. I close the curtains against the twilight.

And wake up to thunder. And rain. Lashing rain and tremendous winds and lightning, for a couple of hours. The bike will be very clean tomorrow. Sigh.

The alarm goes off, and soon I'm at breakfast, which doesn't open until 8 am--too late to make the 8:50 ferry. I sneak into the restaurant with some group or other at 7:30, gorge myself on calories--a 170 km ride will require about 3000 of them. I go back for seconds, thirds, fourths. I eat until people start to notice, then I pay, load the bike, and quickly ride back into town under dark, threatening skies. But a lovely hotel--Farewell.


The fast ferry across the wide Westerschelde estuary waits. Huge, menacing. Not what I was expecting. It could carry dozens of semi-trailer trucks, but since completion of the long tunnel, it's used only for foot and bicycle traffic. It's 8:50. We load, I lock the bike, and go upstairs with the camera.
 


The sky looks positively evil; it is not promising at all. I really am not going to get another chance to do this ride. The ferry at the other side, 120 km east, runs only on weekends. It is my last free Sunday. And today's winds out of the west are perfect. If the weather turns nasty at just the wrong point, I will be 70 km from the nearest Dutch train station (Belgian ones are a total hassle with the bike). We're talking hotel, a logistical nightmare, and missing work on Monday. The huge ferry reels on the North Sea's swells. Twenty minutes later, we're all a little green as we disembark...
 

...as we disembark in bright sunshine! OK, then!

The passengers all scatter without goodbyes. I turn west--yes, west. You can take a general, one-screen look at the map -->HERE<-- or follow the day's ride on the huge detailed map -->HERE<-- (760 KB). Today's ride highlighted in red, previous rides in green.

So I turn west into a strong wind, to find the Netherlands' westernmost point, after which to follow the Belgian border (east, downwind, hallelujah), cross the Schelde river (weekend bicycle ferry from Doel to Lillo), cross over/under/on the enormous Antwerp canal. The canal is the day's only navigation problem: I don't know how to get across it yet. If there is no ferry or bridge with a bicycle path, I'll have to go all the way south to Antwerp, and they day will be close to 180 kilometers. Cruel and unusual. Either way, then I go northward back into the Netherlands and to either Bergen op Zoom or Roosendaal station. And a ride home, or a hotel if I just can't stand the 3-hour ride home.

The first leg's headwind is stupendous. It will work in my favor when I turn east for most of the day's ride. I keep my head down, and I tell myself again, and again.


I look north across the Westerschelde. Behind those dunes hides last night's hotel. The bike's parts don't complain about their rain-soaking.
 


After two upwind hours that I would basically characterize as Hell, I reach the first border marker. I put on sunscreen. I look through my (new) lightweight sidebags and realize I left my hat in the hotel room. Sigh. Extra sunscreen on my face.
 

I follow the border south, through a very attractive village named Retranchement. I find this name hilarious. I can't stop laughing. People notice. This is a Very Bad Sign. Oxygen deprivation usually holds off until about 100 km of riding, and I'm now only 35 km into this one. Then I miss a turn, another Bad Sign. So I have to pedal into the wind, in search of...


...the Netherlands' westernmost point. Now, this is very strange. According to my map, this should be it. And the pieces fit--the Belgian sign on the left and ugly, un-Dutch power poles just beyond. But how can a restaurant be sitting directly on the border? Now I'm really intrigued--exactly where IS the border? It's several minutes of searching before I see it. It's actually in this picture. Look closely.
 

Look to the right end of the restaurant and the small white pole. That's an official Dutch border marker.


The border line cuts right through the restaurant, diagonally. I just barely got these pictures: the restaurant is opening for lunch, and a car parks in front of the border marker, blocking my view. Their front tires were in Belgium, their rear ones in the Netherlands. They never noticed.
 

And now from the westernmost point, it's all downwind. Through Sluis, an attractive if bluntly named town. South for a bit and a break at Kruisdijk, an sad, all-but-abandoned house and pentagonal moat on a leafy spot where several dijks meet.


The area seems depressed...in more ways than one. How many bricks were laid to construct this, yet now it's been abandoned so long that large trees are growing inside. All the bricks. Could anyone count the number of bricks? I'll have more to say about bricks in a week or two, in one of Downwind of Amsterdam's final, summary posts.
 

The above picture is available in really huge format HERE.

But most of the afternoon's hours consisted of following the border, noodling just into and just out of Belgium, always within sight of the other country and sometimes straddling the border as I rode.


Another rest stop, just north of Sas van Gent. As I write this and follow along on the map, and I remember what these places looked like, even what the moment's weather was like and what birds were singing. But I know that before long I'll forget.
 

South of Terneuzen, a sign warns bicyclists that the old northbound ferry doesn't run anymore. It says that busses run through the new tunnel, and that each bus can take up to 3 bicycles if you want to chance it. The weather is turning dark, but I'm not tempted. I continue east.

East through Nieuwmolen, then Koewacht (cow watch). Another break at the main intersection of Sint Jansteen, under a ANWB direction sign and concrete Jesus on the cross. Then on to Halfeind, where I've set my decision point: on to the Doel-Lillo ferry (last one departs at 19:00), or south to cross at Antwerp. An easy decision: it's only 16:40. Through Kieldrecht and into Belgium, all the signs point to Doel. I follow them across flat fields. and it starts raining. The wind is strong enough that I can ride very fast, fast enough to stay just ahead of the worst of it. Of course, when I stop at the river, it will catch me, but I will dry off under shelter while I wait 45 minutes for the 18:00 ferry.

Of course, there is no shelter at Doel's ferry pier.


We wait, I and three of the local hooligans. Belgium is just incredibly ugly right here. And it's a race to see which will get to us first: the ferry or the next raincloud.
 

The ferry wins (meaning we win).


We get inside and wait to depart, beside Electrabel's nuclear steam clouds.
 

From off the North Sea, up the Schelde and too close for my comfort, booms a Chinese freighter, impervious to everything in its path, like a small planet.


Some people think this is a good idea.
 

We roll down the ramp and off the ferry--no charge--and down the long pier into Lillo, a Vesting, meaning an old fortress town. Now a small cobblestone square with restaurants, very nice but not what I need right now. What I need right now is a way out. And what I find is the one way out, a narrow road out the north side, which dumps me and everyone else onto an industrial highway. Bikes are forbidden in the tunnel, and there is no other road. I'm not even sure there is another way out of this place, even the long down to Antwerp and back up. The evening's last ferry has left Lillo.

There is a bent, faded sign "Lillobrug". A bridge. I know it doesn't cross the river, so it must cross the canal, which is great. I ride up the long, high ramp in high spirits, then I see the bridge--and for the first time in 3700 km of riding, I absolutely panic.

This is Lillobrug.


It is a train bridge. It is automated. The white stripes make a crude bicycle path, but it is a very long bridge, with no space on the sides to dodge freight trains, and they sure aren't going to stop. I don't know how fast they would come at me. This is not good. And Omigod--it's a drawbridge. So when I get halfway across, they could raise it, and I'm up for a ride very, very high up in the air. I would have to ride it up, watching upward to rush for the best place not to get crushed. Then it occurs to me that it's getting late--what if their normal procedure is to leave the bridge up all night? No one could see me up there, there's no one to hear. I've run out of water and food, but I have warm clothes and a rain cloth to hide under.
 

But I simply don't have much choice. I keep to the middle (to dodge a train from either direction), and roll to just a few inches short of gap where the drawbridge section starts. I stare up and down the enormous canal. I can see no boats approaching from either direction, so in principle whoever is in charge of this bridge, wherever they are, has no reason to raise it. I judge the drawbridge section to be 150 meters in length--maybe 30 seconds at my top speed. I get off the bike and put my ear to the rails. Nothing coming. I launch across before I change my mind. I roll across the opposite gap--23 seconds. I'm off. I catch my breath. I have now ridden 130 kilometers, and 30 to go. The bridge just stands there. I focus past it, to the west, upwind. Clouds dumping rain.

It takes another half-hour to backtrack three times around this industrial area, trying to find my way out. Finally a sign: Stabroek, a town just northeast, and I wind my way to it. Now, I'm within a few km of the Dutch border and Bergen Op Zoom beyond. So do I make a beeline for it?

In one of Life's great mysteries--no, I don't. Write it off to exhilaration at finding the world again, or to oxygen deprivation or hypoglycemia, but I turn northwest to get to Bergen Op Zoom the hard way, along the canals. And for another hour and a half as I roll north, I wave to barge captains, and I try to identify birds I hear. All the smokestacks and large motors turn into lock passages and then to sheep along the quiet dijks. The sun glitters yellow off the water.

At the end I turn right, to Bergen Op Zoom, and the rain clouds are behind me again. This time their wind gusts catch me just as I roll very fast through the cobblestone streets to find the train station. My GPS batteries choose just now to blink off. Great. I happen to roll right to it. The Amsterdam rolls up just as my ticket pops out of the Automaat, I haul the bike on, and we're rolling in the heavy rain.

And that was it. I was safe. I had done the ride that had stuck such fear in me, and I had done all 172 kilometers (107 miles) of it. Nothing could take that away, or could take away the memory of making myself small while I sneaked breakfast, of all the roads and towns, and numbered border markers, and ferries huge and small, and sun, and rain clouds, and wind, and crucifixes over town squares, and farms, horses, birds on rocks on the shore, of munching sheep and glittering water, of frightening bridges faced very much alone, and of rolling to the station, through the station, and up onto the train and here onto a comfortable, padded seat. It had ended so casually, so invisibly to other passengers milling about. If only they knew. Rain lashed the train's windows. I'd be home by midnight, nothing could stop that. Nothing.

posted by eric at 23.56 CET | Permalink | Comments (1)

June 14, 2004

Kempenland

Legs not too bad from yesterday's German-border ride. So this morning back to Tilburg station, for the next leg eastward across the Netherlands' south border with Belgium. Best to consider this the second of two Brabant rides, the first one being just three days ago, on Friday (hee hee, yes it's Monday, I'm playing hooky again).

Today's bike maps: small one HERE to fit on your screen, large one HERE (760KB) for detail, in case you want to follow along. (As usual, red highlight on today's ride, green highlight on previous rides.

I pick up the eastward trek at the border, where I left off Friday--at bicycle path marker 24700--just a few meters inside the Netherlands.


And sure enough, in the greenery just off the bicycle path is this border marker, placed by the Dutch. Just as intersection direction signs and bicycle path markers and traffic lights are individually and uniquely numbered, so too are border markers. Number 211 doesn't mean anything to me, but no doubt it's stored in a Dutch database somewhere. The marker is sensibly painted white to stand out in greenery.
 

Not even an hour into the ride, it's too hot and I'm changing into shorts. Between two stacks of wood along the bicycle path provides the perfect cover. I can see other cyclists coming long before they can see me.


 
 

Next, a turn south to trace out another of the dips of Dutch territory into (otherwise) Belgium. A fair number of time-wasting, leg-muscle-wasting backtracks as I discover more errors in ANWB map #36. Groan. But during the forest rides, it doesn't really matter--so long as I make it to Weert station sometime this evening, the forests are what I came here for today.


Forests like Aalstheide (a forest despite its name), the confusingly named Landgoed de Utrecht, and the unexpectedly beautiful Reuzels Bos (along the Bergeykse Dijk just inside Belgium; pictured just above).
 

The woods give way to open fields at Boscheind (logically enough). The sun is intense in this flat, open land, and with the wind at my back, I sail right past my turn and double back (again), at Luyksgestel (public safety message for the non-Dutch: do not try to pronounce this). I rest and have lunch at a park bench in the shade, at bicycle intersection #25255, just a few meters from the border...


...and from the inevitable border marker. The marker has the same shape as the one pictured above, but it's painted a bit differently. The markers I've seen are dated 1840 to 1870. I can hear the Americans--"it looks too good, can it really be that old?" Yes it can, for two reasons. First, it's consistent with the surveying that must have happened following Belgium's secession from the Netherlands in the 1830s. Second...150 years old is not "old" here. When you build something well and then take care of it--and the Dutch are really good at both--your creations have a chance of lasting. (A lesson Florida could use.)
 

This is not a particularly long ride, and the last few hours have very little noteworthy to comment on or to photograph. Straight roads, cows, truck-repair sheds. Or maybe I'm just getting tired. I trudge my way through the very tedious chain of villages that must have gotten last choice on names: Berg, Budel, Midbuul, Klein-Schoot, Buden-Schoot, Budel-Dorplein. Yawn. Snore. And turn northeastward to Weert, best known in the Netherlands for its millions of manhole and drain covers bearing "WEERT". An industrial town, and along the Zuid Willemsvaart canal it looks the part. THEN: turning in toward town, a boulevard of striking beauty, unexpected by the name of Kazerne Laan. The four rows of trees the largest I can ever remember along a road. Helaas, by this hour it was too dark to photograph, but I promise you I will try again...

For, as you can see from the bike map, we are down to just two gaps in our circumnavigation: from Weert to Maastricht (or the reverse), and the fearsome monster ride from Vlissingen around the Belgian border to Bergen op Zoom. So I will be back to Weert. I will capture Kazerne Laan.

Weert station unremarkable. The train ride mercifully uneventful, except for one scramble for the camera, just before Utrecht...


 
 

posted by eric at 22.14 CET | Permalink | Comments (0)

June 13, 2004

Tot ziens, Duitse grens

More and more, every day now, it occurs to me that I'm saying good-bye here to...everything. I don't like it, but so far I can still treat it as a challenge to see as much as I can. So long as I must say good-bye, to know what I'm saying good-bye to. Today I was my last ride along the Netherlands' German border. Dus--tot ziens, Duitse grens.

Today's bike maps: small one HERE to fit on your screen, large one HERE (700KB) for detail. (As usual, red highlight on today's ride, green highlight on previous rides.

Off the train at Zevenaar, just where a few weeks ago I started by long ride through the Achterhoek, the Netherlands' "back corner". In a few minutes, at the voet/fiets veerboot (foot/bicycle ferry boat). We wait for its unloading on the other, south bank of the...the...the, uh...

Look, this isn't my fault. The Dutch cannot quite decide what to call the river right here. In the interests of water control, they have split, diverted, and recombined the Rijn, and merged it with other rivers so many times that even they have lost track of the naming. One of my maps calls it the Rijn, another calls it the Waal. The latter possibility of which interestingly puts the town on the other bank--Millingen aan den Rijn--on the Waal, not the Rijn. Which is like a lot of other towns named "X a/d Rijn", stranded from the river that gave them their name. "Oh, that name means the Old Rijn," they tell me. Not that I blame them one bit for preferring weirdly anachonistic names to the massive, regular flooding of old.

Uniform River Naming--sounds like a deadly-important job for the Glorious European Commissions (zijn zij GEC?). Right up there with their life-saving renumbering of all European motorways.


Uh, back to our ferry. The ferry was waiting for this barge. I would have included the entire barge, but it would have stretched back off your screen about to your kitchen. And notice the motorvan riding atop. Almost all these barges have a similar remora-like vehicle. I understand that between living quarters on board and a vehicle to buy groceries, etc, you really wouldn't need the expense of a land-based home. Actually doesn't seem like a bad life, but then I am an ex-pat nomad myself, saying that. What I don't understand is how they get the vehicle on and off the barge--I've never seen a ramp for it. I have seen a crane, as in this picture. You don't suppose...
 


The barge churns by and here comes the ferry.
 


And there's always one who can't wait to launch. Obviously with lots of practice. The really fanatical cyclists seem to have absorbed each ferry's habits and speeds of loading and unloading. That would take a lot of cycling and riding of ferries. That would be a nice life.
 


Then we get our own turn to cross. It's not more than 600 meters. At the moment of this picture, we are crossing the wake of a petroleum barge.
 

And for the next hour or two, I find myself forming a braid, back and forth, with the previous ride of only six weeks ago (described HERE). It is incredibly fine to recognize so many landmarks: the park bench at the Kerkdijk's end where my the wind knocked over the bike, the bike-path T where I turned left and got homesick just across the canal from Dutch territory (but where today I turned right, Nijmegen's skyline, the confusing intersection on Wyler's south (Dutch) edge. There was one moment I could have lived my whole without: Berg en Dal (Mountain and Valley), with its incredibly long and steep rise--and no bike path. So we have outside mirrors of all the teenage hell-drivers whizzing just 10 centimeters from my elbow, as I push my bike uphill. Finally I find a foot path and accept its risks of thorns and moss-slippery steps instead.

There's this problem with reading maps while riding. Two roads might look like they intersect but don't quite. And between the two roads is invariably an unmapped canal (with no locks to balance across) or else a farmhouse with big dogs. So Ketelstraat and Hogewaldseweg approach to 80 meters, but...farmhouse, dogs, you know. I have to ride to the town of Bredeweg and look for the street named, uh, Bredeweg, which is weird. But not as weird as what greeted me at the local atelier.


Hello? No indication of what's going on, whether for sale or just display. They were just there, stacked around the street corner. OK, then. I rode away a little faster.
 


I continued south for just a few minutes and turned left onto the bike trail named Grensweg (border way). It does in fact follow the border: the trees at left are in Germany, but path is in the Netherlands. But the paved path turned into this kind of road, which turned into a slow gravel nightmare.
 


 
 

Finally, a sharp right turn in the border and a paved road rescue me. I check my tires--no softness, no puncture. I admit I looked forward to paved paths for the rest of the day.


For a day that had begun so dark and so little promising, it was ending by requiring sunscreen. This is from over the Niers and looking east toward Ven-Zelderheide, the town I had just ridden through.
 

I thought I had a little time, so to follow the border as closely as possble I detour to the community of Vrij by taking a road named...Vrij. This should have been a warning. The few farmhouses clumped together are full of pickup trucks, guns over the mantle, and the truly angriest, meanest dogs I've ever seen. Only one was loose, but he was old enough to outrun. These dogs looked practically rabid, lungeing at the fences toward me, slobbering on each other as the did. It was all to easy to imagine the owners doing the same. I would expect this in West Virginia or Oklahoma, but not here. I make great time out of there.

Which it turns out I needed. I follow yet another hard right turn in the border, and now it's a straight line to Bergen and the ferry and Vierlingsbeek and the train station. Trains stop in remote Vierlingsbeek only once per hour, unlike the usual 30-minute cycle elsewhere in the Netherlands. Distance by GPS and train schedule mean that this is going to be tight, and I really don't want to miss the train and sit on the platform, in the sun, for 59 minutes.

Of course, everything is wrong. Traffic in Nieuwe Bergen is terrible. The traffic light is stuck at the N271 highway crossing and I simply run the light. Next I get a headwind. And of course, of course, the ferry is on the other side when I get there with 9 minutes to train time.


Over there, the ferry loads, the ramp's up, they cross, and the cars roar off even before the ramp hits pavement. I remember this. Our side's cars squeeze past, fast, and they brake hard at the front. I follow just behind the last bumper, and the ferry roars and blows exhaust before I'm fully on, but I keep going. I pay the 60 eurocents, and the cars and I start off before the ramp hits pavement. I'm off and hit the train station with 3 minutes to go. I stop at the ticket automat.
 

The crossing bells sound--the train is 2 minutes early! The ticket automat takes my precious bank "PIN card" and won't give it back. I hit the red button, pocket my card, haul my bike on the train with no ticket. Control comes, I'll deal with it.

Control does come. "Goeie middag", good afternoon, is all they say, and you're expected to have your ticket out. OK, I explain the situation in Dutch and hand her the Fiets Dagkaart (bicycle day card). She nods and asks my destination and writes out a ticket for me, no surcharge. She is taking my word for it. Which is logical, actually--if I were a deadbeat, I would hardly have bought a ticket for the bicycle and not for myself. Plus, there may have been other passengers on this train that had the same story about Vierlingsbeek's automat. On this train, or even on earlier ones. I remind her that she forgets to give me change for my 20-euro bill, and she apologizes, "Sorry, hoor" and we chat a moment. The whole transaction in Dutch. I'm sure she knew I wasn't Dutch--but it didn't matter. Wow, it can be done.

I change trains in Nijmegen. In the Intercity train I slump forward on the bike seat to steady both of us. Forests flash by the windows as we race westward. The things I saw today, I don't know if I will ever see again. Farewell, German border.

posted by eric at 21.05 CET | Permalink | Comments (1)

June 11, 2004

Westelijk Noord-Brabant

I had to get almost nasty about it, but my fietsreparatiebedrijf (bicycle repair shop) finally decided to fix the problem. The transmission just needed oil. Three things to say about this:

  1. I'm sorry to say this, but this experience was utterly typical of services in the Netherlands. While services in the US typically vary from company to company, in the Netherlands they seem to vary more from person to person, often in the same company. What got the bike fixed was: I found someone (gasp!) who actually wanted to (amazing!) to...fix the problem (oh my!). In shops here, at my job, in fact everywhere except the trains and better restaurants, they give just enough to get you to go away. No matter that you will have to come back later for the full answer or all the bike parts. If you go away now, they consider that they have done their job.
  2. The bike has a transmission. Like an automobile. It works spectacularly well. It is sealed against the environment. It also requires a technician to lubricate it. This time the technician did what I asked, and the noise went away. Imagine that.
  3. The third point requires a picture of the bike's drive train...


This is ten minutes after I started today's ride, from Bergen Op Zoom station. The chain is clean and oiled (I did that myself). Everything is connected, with standard parts--or is it? Look closely.
 


Yes, the bike shop repairman lost the little screw that holds together the bike-chain cover. So just 500 meters south of the station, the whole came apart while I was crossing a busy highway. Did he bother to find the screw on his shop floor, or to look for another one? Did he even tell me so I could find one? No--he just sent me off with a smile and a booby-trapped bike. So, by the side of the highway I found a soft twig of the correct diameter, and I simply twisted it into the threaded hole. Actually, it worked perfectly, and for the whole day.
 

Western North Brabant. It's noon, and I'm just getting started. Today's bike maps: small map HERE to fit on your screen, large map HERE (700KB) for detail.

Headed southeast to gain the Belgian border, I pass Woensdrecht military air station and quickly snap this picture between patrol cars.


And you can see that the weather is already turning wet.
 

A half hour later, it really threatens to storm, and I head to Essen train station, just over the border in Belgium. Stations are a great place to wait out storms--plenty of cover, no one bothers you, and usually there are drinks, a WC, a place to lock your bike, and sometimes food. Plus, you can just catch a train home, if things turn really ugly. Today, there was even another reason to go here: I wanted to scope out the station as an alternate end-point for the upcoming Monster Ride--Vlissingen/Breskens to Bergen Op Zoom. 155 km with no stations between. But Essen station is not inviting, they don't have a ticket automat for Dutch trains, and the ticket office closes too early to be of any use as an evening alternate boarding place.

The rain lasts an hour, as usual, and when I judge that the last wave of rain and wind has passed, I launch. The streets are wet, but at least I'm moving, first eastward along the curiously named "Over d'AA" then south down Helstraat, a sometimes dark, overgrown country road...


...with a few lovely surprises along the way.
 

Soon I approach the village of Achtmaal. Eight meals. I suppress the unkind notion that the Catholic mothers in this part of the world have to fix eight meals at a time. [23 June: OK, it actually means "eight times", not eight meals, as per Comments, below.]


Yes, this picture is for real. Tractor pulling on the fourth of July in progressive, urbane Achtmaal. I did not make this up. Oh, to be there: Photo Opp of the Decade. Too bad I'll be shaking off jet lag in Chicago.
 

And the weather continued to improve, and the wind strengthened from the west (yaay!), and I rode north then east then south then east again, tracing the Dutch-Belgian border and its characteristic razorback look. Farms, lots of farms. Most crops are just beginning to sprout, a very busy time for farmers, and today they're all out working to protect their livelihoods.


I had heard of this--killing a few pest birds and hanging them up as a warning to other birds--but here is the Flanders Catholics' special refinement: hanging them on crosses. "Vengeance is mine sayeth"...OK, OK, I get the freaking message, already. (just off Zigraeck, south of Ulicoten)
 

Soon I had reached a nice town named Baarle-Nassau (if you're Dutch) or Baarle-Hertog (if you're Belgian). OK, I should explain this.......but I can't. What this looks like is an island of officially Belgium territory within the Netherlands. Or maybe it's a joint-ownership town. The town's enter-exit signs had both names and both national flags, so that was no help. Shops, not wanting to alienate customers of either persuasion, were most often named Baarle, no suffix. I'm not sure what's going on here. Or why they have a Stationsstraat when there's no station within 20 km.) Strange.

Then it was time to head north to Tilburg and its station, but first a long, leisurely ride through some truly magnificent forests. It was impossible to be in a hurry here. The camera had trouble with the forest's deep darkness, but here's the idea:


 
 


 
 

I found Tilburg and the station. At the apartment I put the bike away and lugged my stuff up the stairs. I lay down and slept and dreamed all night of dark green forests.

posted by eric at 23.16 CET | Permalink | Comments (3)

June 10, 2004

Right and Wrong

Now that I'm only a few days away from packing and moving and changing my country of residence, it's a good time to look back on things I did that made my life easier as an ex-pat in the Netherlands, and some things that made it harder. Here's what I did right and wrong.

Let's have dessert first. What I did right:

  • Got Internet access immediately on arriving. Ha--you thought I was going to say something about work or the bike, etc. No, these days, this is easily the most important, even for things you might not think of. For one thing, it erases time zones: I can follow my US bank accounts, e-mail, investments, company benefits, all that American stuff. But less obvious is that I made hotel, car, and flight reservations in the US and Netherlands, train reservations in Netherlands and France, looked up train schedules almost every week (including their last-minute changes, kept this blog going of course, researched computer problems, bought books and other things for delivery during my US trips, sent and received tax stuff for the US and NL (again, no time-zone or language problems). I looked up when trash is picked up on my street, when and where ferries crossed rivers for my bike trips, etc etc etc, and no one had to know or to deal with the language thing. Whatever Dutch I couldn't understand, I could translate...on the web (voila.fr). Look, none of this was possible 10 years ago. Internet access and familiarity is just a convenience at your home, but it makes a huge difference overseas. Easily the #1 thing I did right. I estimate that the internet has taken HALF the difficulty out of ex-pat life in the Netherlands.
  • I kept and brought over much less stuff over than people recommended. This was a big plus. I sold the car outright. I left the piano in storage. I sold the house right away. I left 80% of my books, all furniture, and most electronics.
  • Sometime before I came over, I bought a top-of-the-line laptop, one that I knew for certain would last 2-3 years with zero maintenance. Big plus. A full-size computer, monitor, etc. just wouldn't fit here, and I hardly missed it anyway. This would have been expensive in the NL; and if I bought it in the US after I moved here, the duties would have been several hundreds of euros.
  • Just before I came over, I read everything I could find on Dutch life and culture (which in the US is, shamefully, not a lot). So when I got here, I was only surprised by the degree of differences. Very few things were absolutely surprising--I had already had time to get used to how they work and think, how they travel, etc etc. (Though I have to say nothing prepared me for Zwarte Piet, over which I still reel sometimes.) Highly recommended.
  • Just before I left, I set up a mailing address, mail forwarding service, and bank account in Illinois, my eventual (well...three weeks from now!) US residence. The continuity gave considerable piece of mind--I didn't have to worry about tax forms or old bills or anything like that getting lost and my getting sued or whatnot. Certainly it would have been cheaper to have my mail forwarded from my company's address, but there's the whole privacy thing.
  • Brought two filing cabinets with all my tax, financial, etc files. The movers complained, but the tax people were ecstatic. Ex-pat taxes are complicated beyond belief, and I had almost everything I needed. It seemed weird at the time, but it was a Big Plus.
  • I insisted that my parents come to visit. The best single thing I could have done. We'll always have Enkhuizen.
  • Got the bicycle. But you know all about that.
  • Did a blog. But you know about that, too.

OK, OK, you ghouls...here's what I did wrong.

  • I should have learned more Dutch language. Actually, I had made an excellent start on this, first in the US and then here. But some Dutch people persistently talked me out of continuing. And the professional class and travel industry here really do speak English, occasionally French. So it has not been the end of the world...BUT...they would argue with me across a table over lunch at work "No no, it's stupid to learn Dutch," THEN they would turn to each other and speak Dutch. I could tell what was going on but not participate. It cut me out of life here. Maybe it would have happened anyway--Dutch is not a particularly easy language, and I'm not sure the language is really separate from their having grown up with it--and my time here was shorter than I expected. But it guaranteed I was an outcast. I don't mind being alone as much as most people, but Lord, enough is enough. I will probably always wonder about this.
  • I should have socialized more here. This is a problem for every ex-pat on the planet. Either you dive into the local social scene, which is probably not possible on a 1-year assignment in a non-native language, or you cling to ex-pats, which hardly gets you any local flavor. I think I did better just being out on the bike--at least that way I was really (I mean really) in deep Netherlands. It's not like the opportunities were rife--through a whole year I was invited to exactly one Dutch home. As it is, all the Dutch tell me I have seen more of their own country than they have. At least that's something.
  • I should have kept up with my US friends a little better. That was just a mistake. Forgive me, those of you who are reading...I will make up for it!
  • I should have gotten an annual NS discount card. I could have saved hundreds on the trains. If I had had any idea I would use the trains so much...
  • I probably should not have ordered a custom bike with an extra-length frame. It certainly made the bike super-stable and fast on gravel, etc., but it did make it harder to fit on trains.
  • I probably should not have gotten so obssessive about completing my circumnavigation of the Netherlands by bike. Or maybe I'll look back on it as making the most of a special situation. Time will tell.

What turned out differently from what I imagined? Well, #1 is this: I look at at my bookshelves and files, and I realize that I planned to spend a lot more time huddled away in my apartment (esp. for bad weather, winter) than I actually did. I actually got out a lot more than I had planned--mostly on the bike. I didn't get as much reading done as I thought, and I sure didn't finish my novel--though I did finish maybe a third of it here.

Part of this is because Dutch weather has been MUCH better than I had dreamed. While Florida was broiling, we had our windows open. While Chicago was windy and knee-deep in snow for weeks, we maybe had one or two short rainshowers per day. By March, it was possible to sit outside for coffee and appelgebak.

People ask me: are you looking forward to going back? Of course I remind them that Chicago is 2000 km from Florida, so it isn't really going back...but yes and no. I was happy to come here, happy to be here, but I'll be happy there, too. I mean: as long as I don't get shot in the streets, or disappeared by Federal agents just for taking photographs, or have my job outsourced to Mars, or get hit by some idiot's SUV (but I repeat myself), I'll be fine.

posted by eric at 19.13 CET | Permalink | Comments (2)

June 8, 2004

The Best Til Last

The plan is to take up in Susteren, where the weather frightened me off that blustery afternoon a week ago. Ride the northbound wind, uh, North as far as I can get. Probably Vierlingsbeek, maybe Boxmeer if weather holds.

The bike ride along the eastern edge of Limburg brought some nice pictures. But the day's best--so to speak--was last. The ferry ride to the train station, and the near-disastrous train ride home.

First, the day's bike maps: really big map HERE, screen-size map HERE. Today's ride in red, previous rides in green, you know the drill.


The newspaper on the train floor is telling. Dinsdag is Tuesday, today. Good. The headline: Train Tickets More Expensive. OK, it is Big News that the tarifs are going up...TWO PERCENT!!! But more important to me is the box "Het Weer", the weather. "Erg warm" is terribly hot. Uh oh. Z-3 means the wind out of the south (good!) at Beaufort Scale 3.
 

OK, this is a sailing nation, and even far from big water, Dutch winds are forecast in terms of their effects on water. Beaufort scale 3 is "ripples on the surface", so something like 10-15 km/hour. A respectable help on the bike, but I'll need water on the way to beat the heat. In the train WC, I change into shorts.

Out of Susteren and by the farms, the heat was worse than I hoped, well above the 28C forecast. In tiny Boukoul I chance on a shady bridge. I dangle my feet over the tiny creek flowing below.


It is pleasant. To cool off, I take my time with lunch and finish the last of the 2 liters of water I brought--only 35 km into a hoped-for 110-km ride.
 

I made a game of taking photographs without moving my butt on the bricks, just snapping whatever I can see from right there, without falling into the creek.


 
 


 
 


 
 

A nice game. And I didn't fall in, though that might have cooled me off.

I launched north again, past a series of forgettable towns and roads under construction. Just southeast of Venlo I discovered I was in danger of getting lost...or of wandering into Germany. I discovered I was getting dizzy from the heat and from dehydration. I had a lot of company. Most of that company were truck drivers. Now I know where all the truck drivers in the Netherlands are--Venlo. But where there are trucks, there are truck stops, and I bought water and iced tea and some sticky fruit-flavored thing I would have avoided with all my wits about me. I drink a liter of tea, and then continue north.

North through the Groote Heide, the Schandelose Heide (which is a forest despite its name), the Lommerheide, the Leeremarksche Heide, and finally onto...Heideweg. Imagine that. Boring roads past flat farms just about all the way northwest to the pompously named Ceresweg, and left to Nieuwe Bergen to Bergen to the ferry. Ah yes, the ferry.

The last (second) car had just clattered onto the ferry, and I coasted fast down the hill...and just as I got to the ramp, the ferry engine roared up. I braked and backed off. The engine stopped and reversed, and the captain waved me on. This was weird, then I realized--this is how the locals normally do it. I messed up the rhythm. You're supposed to glide on just as the boat pulls away from shore. And sure enough, as the ramp scraped up on the opposite road the cars were already rolling off. So did I. The captain smiled. The waiting cars start onto the ferry, and the diesels roar up just as the last one rolls on. Don't blink.


There--now if you ever find yourself at the Bergen-Vierlingsbeek ferry, you know (1) how to make the captain happy and (2) how not to end up undoing your seat belt at the bottom of the Maas.
 


I snapped this just as the ferry made the other side. The blue things on the wall mark high-water marks from Maas floods. From bottom to top: 6 January 2003, 17 January 1920, 25 December 1993 (Merry Christmas!), 1 Feburary 1995. Something says "melting snow" to me. The Germans are thoughtful like that.
 

Vierlingsbeek station had no vending machines. My first connection, Nijmegen station, did have vending machines but all are sold out, not much to my surprise. I load my bike and lose track of time while waiting. The doors close and open again. Arnhem. I am really disoriented. I think about just getting out just to get water even if the train leaves without me. As it turns out, maybe I should have.

Suddenly I look up to see a fellow in a motorized wheelchair in the middle of the train car's entryway. I shake my head--how could they have loaded him in, not 3 steps away from me, without my noticing? I squeeze past him to see the station's clock--3 minutes before departure. I lean out and look up, over the doorway--this is a wheelchair car--on this train the next entryway is for bicycles. Gad. WHY did the NS train people just dump him here, and not tell me to go next door to make room? It's NOT like NS people are bashful.

Now I'm really awake. This is show time. Think fast. With my spread hands I measure my handlebars and then measure the passageway between the train cars. No fit. I start whipping my lock cable out from the chair and tell the gentleman that I'm gladly moving out, to the next car. I roll the bike toward the door and tell him "No, please don't move, I have it." He rolls back anyway. The Dutch comes easily and I tell him I'm out now, it's OK, but he keeps rolling back. I shout "STOP" and he tumbles, chair and all, backwards down the five or six stairs. I wave out the door "ATTENTIE STOP DE TREIN". They do. The guy is shaken but tells me he's basically OK. A huge black guy appears at the bottom and pushes, and two NS guys and I lift from the top, and after some pulled muscles we get the him and the wheelchair up and level. He checks the chair--it works fine. The NS people make way, and I go out one door and up the next, the doors close, and we all leave--4 minutes late. The NS people are very nice to me in the next car. It is swelteringly hot, and I stand by the glass doors where some air is flowing, trying to trick air up my shirt to cool off even a little. I get out two stops later, in Utrecht, and the train doors close on time. But my connection is tight, and I never see the wheelchair again--for all I know he got out before me in Ede-Wageningen.

I make the connection to the stoptrein to my home station, Naarden-Bussum. Departure time passes. Five minutes past, we're still sitting on Spoor 3. The train is sitting in direct sun, even at 9 pm, and there is no air at all. They announce that the driver for our train didn't show up for work, we may as well go to Spoor 1 for the next train. I lug the bike over and up. We wait. Departure time passes. They announce that this train has electrical problems, go back to Spoor 3, the driver showed up. Sober, I hope. My back is getting really sore now. It's late. I've chugged 2 liters of liquid since I showed up in Utrecht, still I have no urge to urinate--meaning I must have been severely dehydrated.

What a day. But a Tuesday, you know--hey, I could have been stuck at work.

posted by eric at 23.15 CET | Permalink | Comments (0)

June 6, 2004

Island-Hopping in Zeeland

This is the one ride that has frightened me for a year, ever since I discovered that NS has no train stations anywhere along the 140 kilometers of North Sea coast between Vlissingen (near the Belgian border) and Maassluis (in South Holland, just downstream from Rotterdam). The coast would have to be taken in one jump, and long train rides at each end, and no room for flat tires, or injury, or weak legs, or headwinds, or missed train connections, or even a bad night's sleep before. An unforgiving ride, but lots of beach and who-knows-what-else to see.

I'll spare you the suspense--I make it. Bike maps for today have today's ride in red, previous rides in green. There is a bite-size map (17 KB) that will fit on your browser screen, and the high-definition map (600 KB) that won't.

In fact, this ride turns out not the most demanding of the NL-circumnavigation. There are also no train stations along the Flemish (Belgian) border from the ferry across from Vlissingen all the way east to Bergen Op Zoom--over 150 kilometers. Worse, this ride has a second ferry crossing near the end of the ride, this ferry available only on weekends and only until 19:00 (7 pm). Terrible--not only the demands of the above ride, but I only have 6 weekend days left in NL (one of which must have good weather and westerly winds), and a race against the ferry, too. Egad.

But today I launch from home, and make my first train connection in...Schiphol station. This was an experiment: it seemed conceivable to take the bike up one lift and down another to make the connection...but very weird...


Yet here it is, captured by the camera flash in the world's 7th-busiest airport. We got a lot of interesting looks. Simply surreal.
 

Otherwise the train trip was eventless. A connection in Bergen Op Zoom for Vlissingen, and off and running, northwestward along the Westerschelde beaches...


 
 


 
 

The next picture will not show up here--it is my sop to those who have asked for/demanded/extorted full-resolution images. There is a lot going on in this beach picture (1.2 MB).


The Netherlands may be a small nation (though it seems huge from the saddle of bicycle), but their dunes dwarf anything I've seen in Texas, and are as large as any I've seen anywhere. This picture gives an idea of their size--this dune (near Westduin) was chosen pretty much at random.
 

Meandering through the woods and among dunes, the bike started making that squeaking noise again. This is not good--I'm a long way from home and over 100 km from the day's end. I cannot determine what's causing it, but it feels like it will not fall apart. I feel strong enough to pass most of the Sunday day-cyclists, so I continue north.


Near Westkapelle, at the western (North Sea) tip of the big island, I came across this...what? Monument, inland lighthouse(?)...I found no marking on around it or on the maps.
 

Around the west tip, and now heading northeast, the wind turns out of the north, strong and against me. Dutch weather forecasting does me dirty again. By the time I churn the squeaking bike 17 km upwind, I think seriously about turning south (downwind) to Middelburg, the nearest train station. But all such thoughts evaporate when I come to the island's north end, and the bridge to Schouwen (the next island north), and the Oosterschelde Stormvloedkering (east-Schelde storm flood control), one of the most remarkable human creations I know.


(Forgive the overexposure--my finger slipped and I didn't check. I can recommend better pictures on the Web -->HERE<--). Across the 4-kilometer width (3 sections) of this river mouth, the Dutch have anchored dozens of enormous pillars. Between each pair of pillars, they have installed enormous steel blades, and when a storm surge is predicted, the largest hydraulic rams I have ever seen simply jam the steel blades down into the sand. This system simply blocks the worst storm surges that the North Sea can throw at this area of Holland, and the engineers had to design it to work while essentially floating on sand, the only surface available. The scale of this thing is hard to believe. It is the perfect manifestation of Dutch engineering prowess...and of Dutch stubbornness.
 


And even when the Oosterschelde Stormvloedkering (I love writing that) is open, it creates enough flow resistance that boats have to use locks to cross in and out. This set (Roompotsluis, the Cream Pot Locks) is ingenious: the highway that runs along the O.S. splits so that one part goes over the top of one lock, and the other over the other. Think about it--for locks to work, one or the other always has to be closed, so the highway is always connected, just not always the same way. Cars get what they need, boats get what they need. In the picture above, the lock has just opened, and several boats will make their way inland--highway traffic is flowing nicely over the other lock (behind the camera).
 

It's getting hot. I find a beachside pavilion and buy a large iced tea, use the temporary toilet to change into shorts.


Beachside pavilions line the entire Dutch North Sea. This one is on the large side but otherwise typical.
 


Much of Schouwen and Goeree looks like this. What the picture doesn't convey is the intensity of the bird calls from every direction. The cuckoos were obvious, and nearer the water I picked out gulls and insanely noisy scholeksters, but none of the rest I could identify. That is, when I could hear them over my increasingly cacophanous bicycle. It was getting bad: when I approached retirees to pass them, I didn't have to ring my bell. They looked long before that, sometimes in fear. I would have been embarrassed, but I was too tired.
 

And pleasant rides along the north shore of western Goeree. One of the day's nicest moments was the enormous industrial complexes of Maasvlakte and Europoort appearing across the water, out of the sea mist. I had ridden there just a few weeks ago (previous post -->here<--). Before long I crossed the Haringvlietdam onto Voorne, the last island, and following its long, curving western bank. The sun was getting low, and it was time to head for Maassluis. The bike was louder than ever. I followed the forested, very long, thread-narrow island; this would have been a very nice ride but for the clouds of bugs that eventually covered my shirt, my arms, my legs, and that once in a while got in my eyes, ears, nostrils, mouth. Across more high bridges, across Rozenburg...


...and on the ferry gently rocking across the Maas. The day safely coming to a close, the ride that I had so feared completed. With plenty of time in Maassluis station before the next train, I think about getting under my bike and searching for the noise source.
 

What was I thinking?

I finish my candy bar (Yaaaaaaay, blood sugar!) and ice tea just as the train pulls up.

posted by eric at 23.02 CET | Permalink | Comments (0)

June 5, 2004

Farewell, Friesland

A dark, windy and cold afternoon in June. I pull the bike off the train at station Harlingen Haven. There was a boating festival advertised for this weekend, and I was surprised the train wasn't crowded...

Updated bike map -->here<-- (1.5 MB, the most recent 30 days' rides in red, previous rides in green, as usual).


...and that the harbor's traffic was light. Of course it's true that these were sailors and it was early Saturday morning, so a hangover factor may explain a lot.
 


Walking the bike towards the inner harbor, my closer look revealed some stirring and signs of life, smoky cooking of breakfasts, drinking of coffee, conversations in low voices.
 


The back harbor was so tightly packed with boats that you could walk from one end of the canal to the other across decks. This statement is not theoretical--I saw people do it. And not a loud voice or whining child or radio within hearing.
 


I found the outer harbor's south jetty and bucked the north wind to the jetty's end. A regatta of tiny sailboats braved the blustery Ijsselmeer. I can't understand why the water's surface was so strangely calm in such a strong wind, unless the water is extremely shallow for a wide expanse.
 


The traffic in and out of the harbor picked up as we watched, and this Urk fishing boat (hull registration is "UK") caught our attention...
 


...though someone looks like he'd rather just be sitting by a nice fireplace.
 

Ride the north wind out of Harlingen, along the dijk and watching spray off the North Sea. When I cross over the dijk to the land side, to get past the east end of the long Afsluitdijk that crosses the Zuider Zee, I see some familiar sights from that long, cold ride (previous post -->here<--) on a day like today. A few km farther south, I come across the village of Makkum.

Makkum amazed me with its little village center--very refined and welcoming. I should have stayed and had koffie+appelgebak, but the boat out of Stavoren left only three times a day and wouldn't wait.


I cruised along the Makkkumerdiep and to the end of the jetty. From under the channel marker I munched some lunch and watched sailors take to the IJsselmeer.
 


I discovered what the local industry was. I cannot imagine who owns such boats, but they are made or remodeled in Makkum.
 

I've also heard that Makkum is famous for a kind of multicolor ceramic, a contrast to Delft's blue ceramic. I wish I had known that before I rode through Makkum.

I come to Hindeloopen, which name amuses me greatly. It's crowded onto a spit of land jutting into the old Zuider Zee...


...and I think I'll let this photograph of a main corner in Hindeloopen speak for the contrasts that struck me there.
 

I find the dijk-top trail between Hindeloopen and Stavoren...and it's covered with sheep ****. Oh, is my bicycle going to be popular on the boat. (previous post beginning in Stavoren -->here<--). The boat tickets are sold in the VVV, and I arrive with just 15 minutes to the next boat. It's 4 hours between boats, and I'm really not interested in missing this one, especially on a cold day threatening rain. The only VVV help is patiently pointing out to (to all appearances) a senile couple nothing but the most obvious local features, one that anyone could (and should, with any self-respect) easily find on any map. This takes 10 minutes. I get my ticket, and roll the bike onto the gangway and it goes up. They strap my bike with others across the stern, where it will be rained on, and I go far forward and install myself at the windows and order a kopje koffie, then another. It rains on the windows and thus on my bike. At least the tires' smell is no factor. But from inside, there's not much to see.

It has cleared by the time we dock in Enkhuizen harbor (previous post on Enkhuizen -->here<--) an hour and a half later, and in the time before the next train to home, I wheel around the cobblestone streets, through the harbor, past the cafe (Het Wapen van Urk) where my parents and I had lunch. I dismount. I look around. I wonder if and when I will be here again. Farewell, Enkhuizen, and farewell all Friesland.

posted by eric at 22.49 CET | Permalink | Comments (0)

June 4, 2004

How it feels #1

So it's only three weeks until I fly out of Amsterdam Schiphol, back to America. Every hour, now, someone asks me "Are you looking forward to moving back home?" (and I explain "Chicago has never been home to me.") or someone asks me "Do you like the US or the Netherlands better?" (and I bite my tongue not to answer "Yes.") or someone asks me the really hard question..."How does it feel to be leaving?"

Indeed. How does it feel?

I'll post later with a better considered answer. But for now, this short and very personal answer will have to suffice. While it is not enough, and while I feel enough churning inside me that I know there will be more elaboration later, here's my best answer at the moment:

The US is a somewhat better place to work.
The Netherlands is a much better place to live.

This is no sentimental answer. Both nations have problems, but on the whole, Americans work harder and reap the financial rewards for it--but the Dutch are simply more adult. The Dutch understand that money is a means to a good life, not a guarantee of it. Americans make more money but stay frustrated. The Dutch understand that lasting security is the fruit of justice, not of brute force. American society resembles a young person who hasn't yet figured this out. Europeans wait with a teacher's patient hope that this strong, young, and wildly impulsive member of world society will turn out fine, after all.

In all my Netherlands cycling travels (more than 3200 km now), no one has given me so much as a frown. I have been helped at every turn, and when I don't ask for anything, no one pays any attention to me or to my cutting through dirt roads, or taking photos, or taking my bike on or off the train even at busy hours, or stuttering in their language, or making minor mistakes with money. The Dutch simply assume that you are an adult, that your intentions are private ("eigen", a wonderful and very Dutch word), and they assume without thinking that your intentions are harmless. No one in this country has made me feel anxious even by mistake, and that's during an entire year. The Dutch assume that if you have made a mistake, it is a reasonable one.

And then I think about moving back to the US, to Chicago, and I read this recent article...and I want to burst into tears. I worry that I am moving back into a nation whose best days are over, that I am buying a stock on its way down. I worry that Soros is right in saying that empires' Golden Ages last a century, that America has had its century, and that I am moving back just as it is ending. History teaches that empire declines can be sudden and very, very unpleasant. What will endure? I think of the Netherlands 50 years from now, and I see a place very much as it is now. I think of the US 50 years from now and...I'm not sure what I see. More power poles and jails and security checkpoints, perhaps. More guys with suits and binoculars.

The freedom-loving part of me wants to clutch onto Dutch soil with ten fingernails and ten toenails.

Look--I know that millions would move to the US and its freedom and its money. The irony is not lost on me.

Still, my friends go on asking. Here is the first part of my answer. Here is part of How It Feels.

posted by eric at 23.18 CET | Permalink | Comments (1)